Jack Collins — Quiet Influencer

Jack pulled at the strap of my bib ‘n’ brace to jerk me back and spin me around to face him at his bench. Gentle though he was he wanted to make a point. I always avoided sweeping around his bench because I never liked the grubbiness of his working domain. His spilt drinks and cigarette burns all along the edge of his bench, some deeply burned in and far enough to reflect past fire hazards, spoke of a man whose interest in life was severely diminished. He never kept his benchtop tidy so the floor never, in my opinion, warranted the efforts with my broom. Jack was really the boss of the workshop as foreman and master joiner. He was a quiet unassuming man and was easy enough to forget because of it. He spoke very little and rarely to the apprentices directly. His area of speciality aside from being the best joiner was laying out projects, everything from spiral stairways to circular window frames. He spent most days poring over technical drawings and checking the details ready to go to the wood from which they would be made. As shop foreman, he laid out the joinery for just about every project that came into the shop; no small task with a dozen men and boys working around the shop making everything from doors and windows to drawers, boxes, case goods and the usual joinery of a prolific joinery workshop.

“Clean up ‘roun’ my bench, lad,” Jack ordered. Top, under and around were unpassable for stacks of wood he would get to to lay out. I looked at the wreckage in disbelief, wondering where to actually begin and how any man could allow such dereliction of order to his life. It looked like no one had taken on such a task at his bench in years. The thickly layered dust and shavings clogging every corner reminded me of stratas in geological digs where time shifts were recorded in layers of sedimentary rock and soil changes but in this case, we went from oak to Sapele, walnut to pine and then back to oak again to start over the next batch of projects. The debris had been further hammered down and home in corners beneath Jack’s black and well-worn boots year in year out. What did he want to keep and what did he want digging out and burning in the burn barrel? I filled fifteen wheelbarrows with trash, shavings and sawdust before I saw the concrete floor. Jack’s bench was much taller by the end f the day but Jack, now in his older years, had begun to shrink. With his only work laying out and reading plans, I suggested cutting the legs down three inches.

 “Cheeky beggar!” Jack said. He cuffed me round the head as he said it, reinforcing our positions in the hierarchy.

It took me two days to retrieve Jack’s work area. Apprentices were the dogsbody of the shop. We were often called toerags for some reason I never knew why. What’s a toerag anyway, you might ask? A toerag is usually used derogatorily to describe someone beneath contempt. A worthless being of no consequence. When you did something wrong you would be referred to as a “little toerag’ and even worse. Everyone would look up at the humiliation and join in.

One thing I discovered under Jack’s bench was a very beautiful tool chest replete with drawers and laden with tools from the previous century. He had inherited them from his father and grandfather. Ebony braces, squares and forty-fives. Long paring chisels and chariot planes with such Victorian loveliness you’ve rarely seen. In my interest, he saw something and pulled open the drawers to show me the deeper things of woodworking.

“I made this chest as my apprentice piece.” Jack said, proudly.

“All mahogany and oak. See them dovetails. None measured and all dead to size!” he said.

One thing I could never change was Jack’s appearance. I doubt I could ever find a replacement who could translate plans into finished projects more quickly and more accurately than he could. His brain was hardwired for the task and he could decipher an architect’s designs to make what was missing happen. Architects never got into the needed joinery for frames and structures beyond lines outlining shape and size. Within each 90º corner there had to be some mechanical joint that held frames fully aligned and strong enough to last for a century and more. This was Jack’s main job. In a matter of minutes, he could decide on the sizes of tenons and dovetails, the numbers, twinned or doubled or whatever and this fascinated me beyond comprehension. The business of equals in terms of mortise walls and tenon cheeks was always silly, little more than a college tutors interpretation for students to latch onto. Think planes lying on their sides here. Silly.

There were days when Jack’s bushy eyebrows had a layer of thick dust on them from the days machining of makore, European redwood, oak, ash and others. His wavy hair too carried a wider layer and so did his jacket which summer and winter never left his back. He was the only one who always had three-day stubble on his chin whereas all of the other men were clean-shaven every day. I always wondered when he shaved because I never saw his face any different so never once did I see him cleanshaven but always with a few days’ growth. 

Jack’s overalls were what we call the bib and brace type but in the vernacular came out bib-n-brace as a single word. Basically, these were loose-fitting pants with access to inside pants through slits, button-up fly, and a side knee pocket for the folding three-foot four-fold rules that slid along the side of the lower leg before tapes replaced them later. From the front of the pants was a bib held up by straps that came over the shoulder from either side of the back of the pants. The keyhole clasp slipped over two brass buttons to hold up the bib which also had an angled pocket for a small notepad and pencil. Jack’s bib ‘n’ brace was many years old and I doubt that they were ever washed whereas the other men even had theirs washed and ironed once every few weeks. Mostly these were to keep dust off your inner clothes. In every crease of Jacks being, eyes, hands, clothes and overalls held encrusted layering of ever-present wood-tan sawdust. Whereas this did indeed define Jack, something else defined him that seemed quite incongruous. His cut lines for all joinery and the overall sizing for finished elements of the work to be done was always within fractions of the smallest fraction of an inch — that’s near to thousandths of a millimetre. I doubt that I ever saw any craftsman use finer points on their pencils than Jacks. This alone set him apart from all others as did the inch-and-a-quarter chisel with which he sharpened his pencils so many times a day. He was the one who taught me exactly how to sharpen my pencils when I needed perfect accuracy. He did this with superb speed and accuracy to place the crisp lines for the men to cut to. Any slight variance here would come back on him. That never happened. When I need something sharp for technical drawings, I use a newly sharpened chisel and sharpen up half a dozen pencils so as not to break off in my work.

Jack’s interpretation of life revolved around three things; ale, work and more ale. I could say it was a sad condition really. Drink was his downfall and at aged 65 when I met him he looked to be around 80. There was another element in his life that I wondered whether it would cut it short. He chain-smoked John Player cigarettes and consumed three packs of 20 a day or more. They hung either from his lips or the edge corner of his bench. The ash dropped into the shavings most of the time yet no fire ever started up. When he spoke to me his eyes screwed up to deflect the streams of blue smoke wafting up to his forehead. When he left for home in the evening he left for the pub. His pace at the bar was sacrosanct as was the pint pot he kept behind the bar. Ten pints was standard over the evening but five minutes before seven o’clock he left for home and dinner which arrived on the table dead on seven. But he never missed a day from work because of drink, smoking or a hangover though he did come in with a hangover once or twice a week. He was never grumpy but I knew when to leave him alone.

Jack was the one who would strip down a carburettor, change out the parts and reinstall it ready for the drive home. He taught me to repair machines like bandsaws and how to strip them out, fettle parts and reinstall a whole manner of components. Back then we filed bandsaw teeth by hand as we did what we then called sawbenches with 22” circular saw blades. This instruction mostly came from Jack who took every apprentice under his wing in the first two formative years. But one time he removed the wheel from his 1940s Ford Prefect, removed the innertube, cut up some rubber and applied some contact adhesive to both pieces and reinstalled the tube in the tyre (tire USA). Then he tied a rope around the tyre, used a stick as a tourniquet and started pumping the tube until a seal formed around both rims. The tyre popped when he released the tourniquet and he finished off the inflation ready for restoring the wheel.

Well, that was Jack. Another influencer in my life. Some people occasionally ask me which other makers influence my life. Well, none of them can really match what Jack and George freely gave to me. I will never forget his blue-grey eyes clouded and shrouded by blue streams of smoke and overhanging eyebrows covered with wood dust. Such men influenced many an apprentice’s life in both very positive and sometimes mildly negative ways. The dusty shoes though always polished beneath were covered in dust from the machines that surrounded his bench which was centred in the hub of activity both for the machine workers and the bench hands. Such quiet, unassuming influencers were throughout England with no intent to ever leave their mark through quick-witted, smart-alecky remarks. They just deposited their knowledge and skills in the lives of those that followed and did it quite freely at that. They just did it!

28 Comments

  1. Thanks Paul for another insight into the environment in which you apprenticed. I’ve always keenly enjoyed reading you thoughts about George. Now there’s Jack – with his likeness!
    All the Best!

  2. Paul,

    “We stand on the shoulders of giants!”

    We have all been blessed to live among ‘em! My late Father retired at 55 with a hobby of woodworking, operated a furniture repair and restoration shop with my Mom for 10-years, until lung cancer struck him down at 65. Today, I will start unpacking boxes from his shop and integrating them into mine. A “Giant” will be walking in my shop, today.

    You are a “Giant” to many of us.

    Respectfully,

    John

  3. Paul thank you for sharing this story and for all that you do. I have never had someone like Jack in my life, but thanks to the work that you share I learn a ton from you.

  4. Thanks Paul. Wonderful post. I very much enjoy hearing about your apprentice days and who influenced you.

    What did you mean by “The business of equals in terms of mortise walls and tenon cheeks was always silly, little more than a college tutors interpretation for students to latch onto.”? Could you please elaborate?

    I think we all have a duty in our trade to freely share info. At 54 (I started my chemistry career at age 18 in college), I have a lot to share and have been mentoring people for more than a decade. I have many who did that for me early on and appreciated it. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if our immortality is being remember by others and the influence we have had on others and then that being passed forward. I will stop here as that starts to get religious in nature and though important in my life, beyond a blog.

    I lived in the UK from early 1996 to early 1998. Was a wonderful and difficult (all by myself and I was lonely more that I wanted to be). I was and am a lightweight when it comes to alcohol. Pub lunches were somewhat common. It was somewhat common to drink two pints (40 fluid oz) at lunch. I’d come back to the lab with a good buzz and then need to work with dangerous chemicals. Quickly learned to not drink as much as others. Once I ordered a half pint and was relentlessly teased because of it.

    1. Many college teachers and university teachers are picked from the best students and become teachers and trainers because of their academic ability but never worked as artisans for any real significant development or any appreciable length of time to become truly experienced. They in turn follow on with what they were taught even though it might have nothing to do with real life. Probably half of the gurus out there did the same and so put their own spin. I am always shocked at how little magazine editors know from working the craft but end up being seen as, well, experts. These are highly influential beings but really did nothing more than work as editors. Name a well-known woodworking magazine and I will tell you what their experienced staff did and did not do to get to be known as experts. With the demise of true apprenticing, we see the void filled by private schools and then too public technical colleges with a leader who actually failed in the real woodworking world. There is a rule of thumb called “thirds” or “equals”. That is that the walls on each side of the mortise hole and the mortise itself should be divided into one-third of the thickness for the tenon and one-third of each side of the mortise. There are others but in reality, this very rarely works or is necessary. Hence my reference to the pure stupidity of laying planes on their sides. It was fine for 13-year-olds in schools, good on a gravel pathway or concrete floor when fixing doors, but thoroughly ridiculous for adult men for two-thirds of a century to comply with without questioning.
      And there is nothing wrong with not drinking alcohol of any kind either. If I drink half a dozen glasses in a year that’s tops. Waste of money, waste of time but I do like a taste about six times a year when I might just drink one. I have seen too many lives ruined by alcohol and too many people say it never harmed them. Poor Jack was one of them as were half a dozen others I worked with. Oh, waste of money, waste of time? All wines taste to me like vinegar. It’s me, I know!

      1. I’m afraid to say that I fear that the old ways are done for these days. My father was a master mechanic and I unfortunately was kicked out of the service bay at the age of nine for greasing the chassis of a woman’s car at the direction of the mechanic on duty. I couldn’t work in the service bay anymore and I could see the sadness in my father’s eyes, so I started working the full service fuel pumps. I never found that level of mentorship really again, but Dad made sure that I had a leg up in the computer industry. It still doesn’t really matter, because young people think that what was learned decades ago is now irrelevant, even though I can point to a problem immediately after just having a conversation about it.

        The old guy that you were taught by and remember probably had his own demons and the drink facilitated him to escape them. We never fully can understand someone else.

      2. Thanks Paul for the response. Any chance you could elaborate on what is appropriate mortise proportions? I often work with that 3/4″ to 1″ thick stock and often just use a quarter inch wide mortise. Not sure what I would do for thicker stock say 2″; most likely I’d pick either 1/2″ or 3/4″ as those are the chisels I have. Skinnier is easier as the next size down for me is 1/8″. I did buy some 1/16″ thick steel to make a 1/16″ wide chisel just because I want one that skinny; I doubt I will use it more than a half dozen times in my lifetime.

        Alcohol has ruined many lives for sure. Most alcohol is an acquired taste. I am also odd in that, if I drink, which is infrequent these days, it is often a vodka martini. Why? The vapors and taste of it remind me of the chemicals I used to frequently work with when I was active at the bench as a chemist. Fume hoods helped reduce the vapors you smelled but not completely.
        Talk about odd reasons for a preference.

        1. No need for very wide chisels.
          I have a Paul Sellers workbench I am very satisfied of but I made a Moravian Workbench for the son (a 2 minutes set-up/knock-down workbench). That implies quite wide mortises. I have made them with a 12mm wide chisel with a method you can see if you google “Høvelbenken i Mariestad er på føtene”.
          It is in a Nordic language but the (3 first) pictures are self explanatory.

          1. Thanks. I did the google search. Basically, they use the narrow chisel to make parallel mortises at the sides of the desired width of the mortise and then chop out the waste in between.

  5. My grandfather was a finish carpenter, (hung doors, cabinets trim etc.) he also sharpened his pencil with a chisel. this brought back a good memory.

  6. Paul,
    I admire your very detailed description of the man’s workspace and the man’s physical description, expecting to find that this fellows work would reflect this visual picture. No, you follow with the precision that made him the kind of leader who was the right man for the job, perhaps gained through the genetics of his father and grandfather. I admire your writing in describing this character, blogs, books and youtube and masterclasses. Good writing skills have become rare to absent with the advent of 1 line texts and a few succinct lines of email. Well done Paul.

  7. I had one such influencer way back in the mid 60s. Paddy was an OLD gunsmith and as a teen I sometimes struggled with a bargain firearm I was “fortunate” enough to get cheap. However he taught me how to do a hand rubbed oil finish and showed me tearing down a firearm I was unfamiliar with was actually easy. That knowledge has stayed with me and I am trying to pass it on.
    I have been making my own linseed based finishes since then and have used them in a variety of ways to great effect. They literally do not make them that way these days. Consider yourself fortunate if you should benefit from one of these old guys. I certainly do and remember the gruff old bugger with great fondness.

  8. I’m beginning to write my memoirs and have taken the indirect path àla William Zinnser and begun writing about the memorable people in my life in no particular order.

    It’s people that make life so interesting and, if we’re lucky, rich in the human way.

    To that point my Uncle Bill taught me the ins-and-outs of farming rice, including machinery repair. Bill was at once a gentle yet colorful soul with great influence on my ability and character.

    I would imagine Paul Sellers to be a person much like my Uncle.

    In this age of social media people that influence us may be people that we’ve never met. People like Paul Sellers.

    Thank you, Paul, for sharing your knowledge and life stories.

  9. Mr Sellers, I thoroughly enjoy all your articles and videos. Just a weathered wood hack here who cant cut a Dovetail , but enjoy making things within my capability.
    Keep up the wonderful work.

  10. This is the kind of history that needs to be documented, being just as important as the obligatory history of kings and queens, presidents, business tycoons and famous explorers. Fascinating, thank you.

  11. It is a sadness to me that my two daughters and two of my granddaughters are married to men that view DIY with horror. Fortunately I love hand work as a retired aircraft engineer and now hobby woodworker. So I enjoy doing stuff around the house. Plus I get to see more of my darling offspring. Don’t get me wrong the men in their lives are very worthy, hard working and loving – just not very handy.

    1. Being handy is a choice. Maybe ask for help along the way and transfer some of your skills and knowledge next time there’s a job for Mr Fixit. It’s always easier just to DIY but the result is always being alone. When one of my sons asked me to make him a cello I said I would if we built it together. The end result? He’s skilled in all areas of woodworking including violin making.

  12. Hi Paul
    Happy birthday may you have many more to come and enjoy.

    Reading your article about Jack and calling you a toerag brought to mind some old tradesmen who use to call you Boy and by there tone of there voice you knew you had to do some thing or you had done some thing wrong. you could be called Boy even when you had finished your apprenticeship as you know at one time was not till you turned twenty one .

    My father was Bricklayer and Stonemason and at one time work a small building firm . The boss was a Joiner by trade and they had a portable workshop were they made windows,doors ect on site they had a old mortice machine not electric that was it ever thing else was made by hand.
    In the workshop the boss had a paraffin heater and in the winter he would put a bottle Newcastle brown ale on it to warm up for lunch.

    Keep telling your stories of old timers you worked with it is an era than as gone that a lot of the younger generation will nether know. It was not the good old days but old tradesmen we were blessed to work with.

  13. Bib overalls is what we Yanks call them haha. Farmers still often wear them. They are comfortable to wear and can carry a lot of things a person needs when working. I have a lot of my grandpa’s old tools. my favorite is his wooden box of bits to go along with his brace that was made in England ( when things were still actually made there). Our seniors have all the old knowledge that the present generation want to ignore.

  14. Thank you Paul. The factories that I worked in as a student for 5 years during vacations had a strict hierarchy. The foreman presided over the areas I worked in each year. Familiar faces but no familiarity was called for. The leading hand, the tradesmen, the fitters, Turner’s, welders. The process workers who were there year after year. Each knew their craft in their own ways. The experienced labourers who were very well learner in lots of areas. The not so experienced labourers like me. The apprentices were on their own level with their own seniority. The youngest were unfortunately sometimes the silliest. They were poorly paid and sometimes poorly treated. Many did not last the distance, but hopefully the skills they learner helped them in life.
    Thank you for you wise reminisces.

  15. Paul you have to write an autobiography. This memories are very inspirational. Thank you for writing them for us.

    1. I am on it already. It will not be called SPARE but toerag is not too far off I don’t think as Harry was another name they called everyone new to their apprenticeship to show that in the hierarchy of things you were not yet up for much; even giving you a name was to show you didn’t really matter beyond “toerag work.” Good that those days are passed, if indeed they are.

  16. Hi Paul. What a great piece of social history your story is, I could read this sort of thing all day long. The reason being is I to have worked with many of these guys like Jack. They where the image of some of the average British working man of that era when I first started out in the work place in the early seventies in Gods own county, Yorkshire.They had all fought in the war and told me you’ve never had it as good, they were straight talking, didn’t mince there words. They were the type that were usually very good at their job, quite unassuming but meticulous in what they did. I look back in affection as they are now an extinct breed, all gone to move over for the next generation . They tried to steer you in the right direction and give you advice they meant well but we’re not right bothered if you took any notice or not, it was usually your downfall if you didn’t.They had a set routine, usually do a good days work, then off to the pub later. I think it was a release of the day in day out work routine, it seemed to me as if it refuelled them for the next day. They were there the next day non the worst for the previously night ready to give any advice or show you an easier way to do an everyday job. For some it was a way of life, probable the only way they knew, but it work for them and usually for those who worked with them. They were happy with there life, they never expected to much out of life and probably knew there own destiny but accepted it as the cycle of life. An honest days work for an honest days pay I can remember them say. If only that was true now!……..

  17. Paul, considering that I live half-a-world away, and we have never spoken, it is pretty incredible that you have become one of the most influential people in my life. I have never doubted for a moment that your overriding objective for tirelessly posting content is to keep traditional woodworking alive and accessible for anyone who sees value in it. For me, that value is tremendous. I struggled with addiction for many years, and I never had a skill or a passion. When I first watched your YouTube video: The Paul Sellers Mortise and Tenon Method, I felt a lost dream awaken. It was a truly spiritual moment for me. So simple, yet so far out of my grasp for lack of skill and practice. I bought just a few tools and gathered a few scraps of wood and practiced sawing, chiseling and planing for untold hours. My wife actually saved the first “fitting” mortise and tenon I completed. From that first project on, I spent at least 4 hours, 7 days a week in my developing woodshop. I even made my workbench from scraps left in the dumpster of a local construction site by following along with your videos. Choosing to focus on the making of, instead of the made, is a principle that can, and should be lived in most aspects of life. You are truly a lifestyle woodworker, and this woodworker will forever be grateful for the work you do. Today I have over 3 years completely clean from drink and drug, and I have a beautiful 18 month-old boy who I can’t wait to teach all that I’ve learned through you.

    Thank you,

    Austin

    1. Austin, I just woke from a three-hour sleep and saw this testimony to your determination and my heart swelled at the thought this important dimension of working with your hands can create freedoms we never thought possible. These testimonies are jewels reflecting beauty in dimensions we can only accept as gifts to us as makers. I spend 2 hours with my four-year-old granddaughter each week as she sweeps the shavings with me and makes things from wood in the most absorbing of ways and my week following is so enriched by the small chats we have as we spend time interacting with one another.
      Currently, my writings include the reasons why we work and the outcome of working three-dimensionally with our hands. It will be a new book one day. You are one of the reasons for my woodworking channels, my writing, my drawing and my life, Austin. Our dependencies shift to where we love because we cannot live without them. Your son is an unfolding wonder to share your life with, a blank canvas to pour yourself into as he grows. I look back on my life with four sons that all learned woodworking with me, alongside me at their vise on the other side of the bench and I have the most beautiful memories from birth to adulthood. Thank you for taking the time to write.

      1. Thank you for your response Paul. Means a great deal to me. I can only try to imagine how my cup will overflow the first time he shows interest in being down in the shop with me. I’m sure your granddaughter will cherish those first memories of being in the shop with Grandpa Paul. I hope your next book will include your observations of watching your children/grandchildren grow up with exposure to hand-tool woodworking. I know that I have been able to appreciate the world around me in an entirely new way. Maybe my son will be able to slow down and observe the details of the world around him and consider what makes beautiful things beautiful… He may even decide he would like to improve upon that beauty with his own creativity and ability bring a mental image to life. That is a special gift.

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